(IAP ’14) Kevin Berkemeyer, G

Kevin Berkemeyer (G, Management)Kevin spent IAP in the Patagonia National Park in the Patagonia region of South America. He worked with Conservacion Patagonica to develop a sustainable energy infrastructure plan for the national park. This included assessing the resources available onsite and the viability of different renewable energy technologies. The goal was to provide a plan for the use of such resources to power the park facilities and serve as a model for other national parks in the region.

Blog Entry 1: “Welcome to a Park under construction!”

One snowstorm, one ten-hour flight to Santiago, one two-hour flight to Balmaceda, and one seven-hour drive to the main lodge, I finally made it to the site of the future Patagonia National Park.


Map of the future Patagonia National Park:

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I was set for every type of weather, ready to spend every night in my tent, and excited to be in the Patagonia region of Chile, an area known for its dramatic scenery including glaciers, peaks, valleys, rivers, and lakes, and as the namesake of Patagonia Company, a personal favorite. I remember as a child my parents dressing me in Patagonia gear, recycling family favorites as we grew. I had always wanted to explore the region and had finally found an opportunity to do so.

More importantly, I was excited to get started on a project with Conservacion Patagonica (“CP”). The organization was established to rehabilitate 200,000 acres of damaged wilderness to create a national park in the Patagonia region of South America; their project includes building sustainable infrastructure, establishing a robust conservation plan, reintroducing and supporting threatened species, and developing trail networks.  Ultimately, all of this work will be donated tothe Chilean government to form the 650,000 acre Patagonia National Park. The MIT Public Service Center provided me with a grant to advise CP on building a park that is entirely energy independent. This park will not only be a critical conservation project in Chile but will also serve as an important model for the creation of other national parks around the world.

CP was founded by Kris Tompkins, former CEO and part of the founding team of the Patagonia Company. Together with her husband, Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face, Kris is committed to protecting and conserving this area of South America for generations to come. Both Kris and Doug have been instrumental in the development of a robust national park system in the region; whenever people hear the Tompkins name, conservation comes to mind. It’s probably one of the most interesting stories in the modern conservation community. They have dedicated their work and lives to protecting the region’s land and ecosystem by converting it into parks. In fact,  the roughly 200,000 acre track CP is rehabilitating was once a sheep ranch.  One of the largest in the country, the land suffered from significant overgrazing before the Tompkins’ bought it. Chile will contribute a neighboring 460,000 acres currently part of the Jeinimeni and Tamango National reserves to create the future Patagonia National Park.

My project was to provide a review of the current energy infrastructure in the park, note the constraints and additional resources that could be added, demonstrate system optimization for microgrids and make recommendations and introductions to support their energy plan. I was joined by two other MIT graduate students, Jeff Sun and Tim Sun, to work with CP. This was all done within the context of CP’s goal to use renewable resources and completely eliminate carbon emissions from its energy use.

Located near the confluence of the Chacabuco and Baker Rivers in a remote region of Chile, the park is completely offgrid. It isdependent upon local resources, and CP was required to build its own grid infrastructure, a distribution network for electricity.

While they are isolated, there is an abundance of resources, including wind, solar and water, to leverage to power the facilities. The total electricity load is approximately 20 kW. At the time of our visit, CP had the following capacity and energy resources installed:

  • Electricity (see photos below):
    • 20 kW DC hydroturbine
    • 20 kW DC solar thermal/electric collectors (parabolic trough solar thermal collectors with high-efficiency solar PV cells)
    • 40 kW DC diesel genset
  • Heat:
    • Solar thermal collectors
    • Alcohol-based heating
    • Wood-based heating
  • Transportation:
    • Fuel: diesel fuel for trucks/work vehicles

The following are photos of the facilities:

The dam with Dago, Nadine and Jeff (pretty nice!):

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The hydroturbine (Dago answering my questions):

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The Solar thermal/PV collectors. These parabolic troughs concentrate sunlight 10x to produce both electricity and heat.


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Diesel Genset (pretty standard and very loud):


The following diagram represents the current system under operation:

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In addition to the above, CP has developed or explored a future energy plan that includes wind electricity generation and using hydrolysis to produce hydrogen as a fuel source for a hydrogen-based fleet of vehicles. The following diagram represents the future system under operation:

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Prior to our arrival, CP had received various recommendations and advice on its energy systems and how they can build a system that enables their goals of energy independence and zero emissions, with one of the challenges being an objective evaluation. Our goal was to provide them with a candid, unbiased and practical assessment that will help inform decisions going forward.

After almost 20 hours of travel, we were excited to get working and we were even lucky enough to run into Kris Tompkins as we pulled into the park. Jeff and I met her before during a presentation at MIT, and it was great to see her again. She greeted us with “Welcome to a Park under construction!” and we had dinner, quickly setup our tents and crashed for the evening.


Blog Entry 2: “What can you do to help?”

When we first arrived, we weren’t fully aware how we would help CP during our time at the park with their energy system. We had limited time and some of our primary goals were to make sure that we left an impact, were helpful and addressed CP’s most crucial outstanding questions=.

On our first day, we met with Nadine Lehner, Executive Director of CP and Dago Guzman, Park Administrator to talk about our project. Dago immediately asked, “What can you do to help us?” We were thrown right in and while my Spanish was a little rusty, I was able to explain my background in solar and batteries and ask what their primary challenges are for their energy system. Dago and Nadine listed off the following:

  • The 20 kW of solar collectors are not currently operational. The company that sold the collectors to CP went out of business just after installation and as a result, CP never received the system tracking software required for the collectors to accurately track the sun, maximizing output. CP was never able to commission the installation and the collectors are non-functioning
  • The hydroturbine only operates approximately 6 months of the year, mostly in the winter due to greater water flow. It is currently non-operational due to a malfunctioning sensor
  • They are relying too much on the diesel genset and would like to reduce this reliance (it’s operational expenses are high because of the high cost of fuel ($2/liter))
  •  Batteries provide an interesting mid-term solution but they are not that familiar with the different technologies and price points
  • The current system does not currently have the control systems in place to run everything in parallel, increasing efficiency and optimization (some components are there but installation and connection is still required)
  • The long-term energy plan for the park includes additional generation, hydrolysis and developing a hydrogen-based infrastructure
  • All of the above is within the context of the following park energy goals:
    • develop a system that is renewable, sustainable and puts CP on a path to zero emissions
    • develop a system that is reliable and practical  – that keeps the lights on and that is efficient
    • develop a system that is cost effective and optimizes the use of different resources
    • develop a system that is a model for parks and similar facilities worldwide and an additional resource for visitors to tour and understand

This was a very realistic and practical list for anyone developing their own microgrid system, but made more challenging by the resource constraints and commitment to zero emissions. These issues were critical to the park operators and CP because energy is a critical piece of their overall work in developing a sustainable national park. They were also critical to residents of the nearby communities because such an energy system provided a new model for power generation that they could potentially implement.

While we would love to help them on each challenge and provide a comprehensive solution to these issues, we knew we could only do so much during our short stay with CP during IAP. After discussing further with both Nadine and Dago, touring the energy facilities (a highlight after studying and working on microgrid systems!) we sat down and laid out how we could best help. We decided on providing the following as a foundation from which to build upon:

1) System Mapping:

During our initial meeting with Dago, he drew the basic architecture of the current energy system (electric plus heating), with the different resources highlighted. He also shared where they would like to be long-term, with some of the options. While there were some rough system plans, we noticed there was no clear synthesis of the progression of their plan and that CP needed simple system maps to visually show the path to achieving their goals and mitigating their challenges. We therefore planned to develop three system maps: the current system, the mid-term solution and long-term solution.

2) Current system components and considerations:

With most microgrid systems, there are several different components that serve as sources of energy generation. CP was no different and we thought it would be useful to breakdown their current system components and provide detail on the capacity, operational profile, operational expense and the pros and cons of that component. This allowed us to look at each piece of the system and highlight the trade-offs of each technology to help CP as it develops its plan.  For example, while the concept of the solar thermal/PV collectors is great (combined heat and power), the design of this system to concentrate sunlight on a thermal fluid and solar PV cells requires access to consistent direct sunlight (the cloudy or diffuse light conditions experienced in Patagonia may limit its efficiency).

3) Future system components and considerations:

CP was contemplating the use of other resources onsite, such as batteries, and we wanted to provide useful context for them to make a more informed decision on technology choice. After working on a battery start-up and with different battery technologies at ARPA-E, I provided an overview of the benefits of a battery, especially to a microgrid, and detail on different technologies, primarily lead-acid, lithium-ion and sodium-ion batteries. Similar to the analysis on the current system components, I went through the pros and cons of each technology and provided a range of expected price points.

Using batteries is a no-brainer for CP because it will allow them to optimize their resources and provide stable and reliable electricity. One clear use case for batteries at CP was in conjunction with their hydroturbine. With a microgrid system, there is a need to evacuate or release electricity from the microgrid when supply is greater than demand to maintain stability of the grid. In the current system, CP is evacuating power from the microgrid by using the excess electricity to heat ceramic coils, thus allowing the energy to dissipate as heat. Instead of dissipating or releasing this energy, CP could be storing it in batteries.

Here’s a photo of the ceramic coils installed on the back side of the hydroturbine house:


4) System optimization overview and modeling

One of the most critical pieces to operating a microgrid efficiently is the optimization of the resources used. A smart control system (called a SCADA system for System Control And Data Acquisition) enables use based on the most efficient operation profile of each resource given the energy demand. It serves a monitoring function to schedule resources to come online when needed, monitor storage and better manage life of batteries. The overall goal of optimization is the minimization of the cost of energy (the cost per kWh generated).

Therefore, we provided CP with an overview of why system optimization is critical to their goals and then used the HOMER model (Hybrid Optimization Model for Electric Renewables), originally from the National Renewable Energy Lab in the US, to demonstrate how optimization improves the cost of energy under the following scenarios they are considering:

  • Current system: 20 kW PV, Diesel Genset, Hydro (no battery)
  • Mid-term system: 20 kW PV, Diesel Genset, Hydro, Battery
  • Maximized renewable generation solution (70% renewables): 60 kW PV, Diesel genset, Hydro, Battery
  • System without a diesel genset (requiring significant alternative generation)

5) Recommendations for next steps

We wanted to leave CP with recommendations on next steps and how to resolve some of the outstanding challenges and issues. We plan to make introductions to companies active in the space, including microgrid developers, battery companies and control system companies. We also plan to have an initial conversation with one of the microgrid developers to gain perspective on how CP can better manage the development of their microgrid. Lastly, we are helping source the tracking software that will allow the solar collectors to function.

While there is a lot to do to help CP with their microgrid system, we believe they have the right approach and that the above items will help provide a lasting impact in the following areas:

  • Framing and characterization of their system and goals, for use internally and externally
  • Identifying and understanding of the current and future system components, especially of new resources
  • Understanding why optimization is important and how a tool like HOMER can help them get started in quantifying that benefit

Jeff and I reviewing some of our work with Nadine:

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In addition to how we helped CP, our team learned a lot during our time at the future Patagonia National Park. What an awe-inspiring place! Aside from the interesting work, it was such a privilege to wake-up “in a park under construction” in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The following is a list of some of the key learnings from the trip:

1) Optimization and control systems are the key to an efficient microgrid.

While I have worked with microgrids before, this was my first on-the-ground experience with a microgrid in a remote region, with no grid connection and with a diversity of resources. I saw first-hand how microgrids with a diversity of resources are complicated systems that require optimization. While the easy path is to install diesel generators, a familiar technology with a low upfront cost, the cost reductions in solar, batteries and power electronics can enable the displacement of diesel and a far more sustainable system from both an economic and environmental perspective. After working with the HOMER model and modeling different scenarios for the optimization of the resources available to CP, the ability to diversify resources but control and operate them in parallel is critical. Based on such modeling, optimization leads to lower operating expenses and a lifetime cost of energy by more than 50%. Batteries can enable this and increase the overall efficiency of the system but power electronics also play a critical role.

While the use of several different types of technology can be complicated and quite daunting, especially to a small organization, the technology is currently available and off-the-shelf and price points are getting better. There is, however, a clear need for the simplification and standardization of a microgrid system.

The following is a screenshot of an optimization output from the HOMER model that I ran for CP:

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2) Conservacion Patagonica is an incredible organization.

I strongly admire what CP is doing in the region and how Kris and Doug are following their passion for conservation and leaving an incredible impact on a region of the world that they love and want to preserve for future generations. After being fortunate to spend time with Kris to go over the energy presentation and speak in more detail about CP’s work and listening to the head of conservation, Cristiano, speak about the parks conservation efforts, I deeply admire CP’s mission and ability to execute and realize this mission. The gains that CP has made and will make in the area are incredible: reviving a Huemul Deer population that is critically endangered, restoring habitats, protecting biodiversity, reversing desertification, uniting two national reserves to create a single Patagonia National Park, the list goes on. They have created a model for future parks, and I’m proud to support that work.

In doing all of this, both Kris and Doug serve a reminder of the great things you can accomplish and the impact you can have by following your passion. My experience working with CP and helping them with their microgrid system further solidified my goals and passion to build and develop more sustainable sources of energy.

Here’s a photo of our team with Kris Tompkins after our final presentation and great chat with her:


3) Conservation is critical.

Spending time in the future Patagonia National Park, listening to Kris and Cristiano and the other CP team members reminds you of the importance of conservation. We are lucky to have a robust national park system and organizations in the US that support conservation. However, it is critical to support and recognize the importance of conservation globally especially as the world changes, population increases and resources are consumed. We could all appreciate our natural surroundings more and a simple day of hiking in a natural park or along the coast can help.

4) Local community engagement is critical to the success of any project.

Whether developing a solar project or building a national park, proactive engagement with the community is key. CP has successfully worked with the local community by employing the former ranch workers in various functions. For example, one of the more successful programs has been hiring the previous workers responsible for hunting Pumas to protect the herds to now track the Pumas for conservation purposes.

5) And finally, camping is awesome!

I honestly miss sleeping in a tent every night. It’s a tight space (especially for someone 6’6”… diagonal is key!) but you have the essentials, it’s quiet, you’re in a beautiful place and you can’t beat the sleep. Next time I would pack more beef jerky because you can always use more calories and it tastes great after hiking, I would secure my tent better in high winds (I had a tent pole snap one morning in some very strong gusts), and I would pack even lighter.

Here’s a shot of our campsite and the view:


Here’s one of a different angle but of the valley and the park facilities:



Blog Entry 3: Changing the way I think about the world

After our time with CP assessing their energy system, we achieved the following:

  • Provided CP with a deeper understanding of the current, mid-term and future energy systems for the park, the constraints of each system and potential paths to mitigation of these constraints. While the current system is primarily relying on the diesel generator and the hydroturbine, when operational, if the goal of the park is to be energy independent, it is clear that there is an “energy gap” or energy generation deficit that needs to be filled with an alternate source of generation. This gap could potentially be filled by installing greater than 50 kW of solar PV and/or wind generation plus a more sophisticated control system and batteries. This deeper understanding will directly support and shape future planning for the park.
  • Demonstrated the importance of optimization to a micro grid. While covered above, one of the more critical achievements through the week was providing CP with a clear understanding of optimization. We did this by using the HOMER model to demonstrate the economic importance of optimization.
  • Detailed the role of batteries in a microgrid and the technology options today. CP had an initial understanding of batteries but did not have the detailed analysis on different technologies nor the role in which batteries can play in their system. We provided them with technical details of lead-acid, lithium-ion and sodium-ion battery technologies, price estimates, and the pros and cons of each technology. CP now has a strong understanding of how batteries can support their operations.
  • We developed a great relationship with CP and will remain in touch to follow-up and support their efforts as best we can. I remain in touch with CP and have committed to providing them with introductions to various microgrid developers, battery companies and control systems companies. In addition, I am helping them assess the solar resource of their different sites to see where best to install their solar PV/thermal collectors. Lastly, I am working to obtain solar collector tracking software to enable the operation of their current installation. I hope to continue to stay in touch with CP and continue to support their efforts in creating an energy independent national park.

Here’s our team with Nadine after our final presentation:


The following was the key takeways slide from our deck that we reviewed with the CP team:

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The last question that MIT has asked regarding my experience during IAP is “has your project changed the way you think about the world and your place in it?

The short answer is yes!

The longer answer is (this is a tough question and I’m sure my answer will continue to evolve) that this trip definitely changed the way I think about the world and place in it because it allowed me to firsthand experience the development of a national park in a foreign country, the importance of clean energy and the positive effect of conservation. This project has highlighted my personal connection with and appreciation for nature and the personal importance of working in an area that I have a passion for and that will have an impact on future generations, thereby solidifying my personal connection to clean energy work and building a more sustainable energy infrastructure. I also gained two great role models in Kris and Doug as I continue through my career and became friends with Nadine and Dago.

Thank you to the MIT Public Service Center and MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative for helping make this trip happen!

In conclusion and for your viewing pleasure, some truly amazing scenes and hiking highlights from the trip: